Textile Toolbox: , image 1

Cereal Magazine & Protein, Forest (2013)

Textile Toolbox: , image 2

Stockholm Resilience Centre, Planetary Boundaries Research

Textile Toolbox: , image 3

Dr Kate Goldsworthy, Design for Cyclability

Textile Toolbox: , image 4

Dr Kate Goldsworthy – Laser Line (2010). Photography by Miriam Ribul


Miriam Ribul
Design Researcher / Associate Lecturer / Research Assistant, Textiles Environment Design, University of the Arts London

30 October 2014

The TEN strategy ‘Design that Takes Models from Nature’ looks at nature as the role model for sustainable, closed loop and resilient systems. Models from nature in design can take various approaches; a biomimetic approach, where natural systems are applied to a different context with the aim to ‘mimic’ its processes for achieving innovative outcomes; or use synthetic biology, where designers and scientists regard nature as a material and synthetic manipulation achieves specific functions, to name a few. In this post, however I will focus on the notion of an ecosystem, and how sustainable materials, textiles, and products can succeed if they are regarded as part of such.

Miriam Ribul

Posted on 30 October 2014 by Miriam Ribul in:
Design that Looks at Models from History & Nature

The undisputed need to move design from a linear model to a closed loop one underpins any approach towards a sustainable or resilient future in the context of material scarcity. The linear model that peaked and fortified itself through the industrial revolution has dominated design until now. One of the scenarios that this led to is the development of new products that have been created for well-being or durability, and had not been conceived or understood as bringing harm to the environment if they were designed for and valued by society. It also lead to new products that have been created from other motivations, such as a notion of a ‘star designer’; where the designer’s hand, or name, automatically justified the existence of a product. 

In the linear model products have been produced exploiting natural resources from materials to energy, and returning this lost value to the environment has not been regarded as necessity. This system lacks the evaluation of the pollution created during manufacture, and a vision for what happens to a product when it is discarded or cannot be further used. This model led to a depletion of natural resources as the model developed by the Stockholm Resilience Centre explains. As is the MISTRA Future Fashion consortium, and as part of the research program this Textiletoolbox web platform, the Stockholm Resilience Centre has been funded by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Environmental Research, MISTRA, between 2007 – 2013. Due to its international recognition it has been granted five further years of funding.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre researches the links between social and ecological systems for the development of new practices that can respond at the same speed as the current global environmental change. Acknowledging how humans play a major role from local to global biospheres, they advocate how we need to create a balance as humans have an impact on them, but rely on them working as usual nonetheless. According to their ‘Planetary Boundaries’ research, we have already crossed three of the nine highlighted boundaries that we need for survival. Their report states how crossing any of these boundaries, as we already did with climate change, biodiversity loss and biogeochemical flow, means we have reached a danger zone where the loss of resources is irreversible. [Image 2]

In design, a closed loop model regards a product or garment as part of a life-cycle, where the end of a product’s life builds the beginning of a new one. As Michael Braungart and William McDonough emphasise in their Cradle to Cradle book, ‘Waste = Food’. In an ecosystem, waste decomposes and builds nutrients for a new cycle of life. Manzini points out that ‘nature is a mesh, characterised by the presence of un-predictable and the unique’. He suggests to build societies following the model of an ecosystem, which is a conglomerate of connected systems. His first ‘nature observation useful to plan open and evolutionary systems’, is based on ‘general laws of evolution and that these laws refer to unchanging structures that manifest themselves through every kind of transformation’. In this system, he emphasises that ‘error-friendliness should be part of connected systems due to the nature of humans and materials’. [1] [Image 1]

Ecosystems are a network of many small parts working separately or in different groupings, but each contributing to the same system’s balance. Ideally linked to the Swedish development and MISTRA Future Fashion work towards new wood-based cellulosic fibres that I will further expand on in the next post, forests are quoted as one main inspirational eco-system. Forests hold an ecological memory that supports their rebalancing act and ecological resilience when they are faced with disturbance. Relations between ‘mobile links’, ‘legacies’ and ‘support areas’ are key to building this network. [2] [Image 3]

Allowing for open and closed loops, and the interrelatedness of systems is Dr Kate Goldsworthy’s research in Design for Cyclability. She developed the conceptual framework for her PhD project and on-going research relating to designing closed-loop material systems. In her research, as ‘part of a design brief for cyclability, materials are made to be recycled indefinitely without losing value, and ultimately to consider the ‘material ecologies’ to which they return. In this interconnected process, unlimited materials can have unlimited life cycles, and the material exchange would be open, dynamic and include all material resources.’ [3] A fashion example for this closed-loop framework would be Kate Goldsworthy’s ‘Laser Line’ jacket for the North Face, where in collaboration with David Telfer a zero waste and monomaterial jacket has been designed for cyclability, making the end product completely recyclable at the ‘end of life’. [Image 4]

The lifecycle and closed loop approach that makes an ecosystem successful is reflected in the structure of the MISTRA Future Fashion project, which explores how systemic change can be achieved in the fashion industry. Recognising that the problems cannot be resolved through better products or better materials only, it considers all segments that contribute to the impact of a garment when it is designed, produced, consumed, and eventually disposed of. In this consortium policy scientists, consumers scientists, social scientists, material scientists, technical scientists work with teams active in the public sector, LCA (Life Cycle Analysis) assessments, new business models, and design thinking and processes. Various collaborations have formed within this ’project ecosystem’, and interdisciplinary constellations create various research recipes for achieving change. 

These forms of collaborations are successful when they consciously or instinctively follow a model from nature. Tim Brown and Jane Fulton Suri from IDEO have been looking at bio-inspired team work models together with biologist Tim McGee, and expanded the model from nature from materials efficiency to human behaviour and connectivity. Here again the forest is one source of inspiration, and they link the idea of a tree or a forest ecosystem to that of a successful team, where space for interaction is as important as space for reflection. [4] Within an ecosystem, the responsibility and value of the designer is changing.


[1] Small, local, open and connected - http://changeobserver.designobserver.com/feature/small-local-open-and-connected-resilient-systems-and-sustainable-qualities/37670/

[2] Ecosystems recover from disturbance, Forests. http://www.asknature.org/strategy/98879d84dcbe0aaa854fcb5db1b37a71

[3] Dr Kate Goldsworthy, Design for Cyclability - http://www.kategoldsworthy.co.uk/design-cyclability

[4] Bio-inspired team work - http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20131119175700-10842349-4-bio-inspired-tips-to-create-better-teams


Ecosystems (post)